It's difficult to believe blueliner Morgan Rielly will play in his 250th career regular-season NHL game on Friday, but it's true. However, the difficulty doesn't arise from his skill level, which was impressive well before the Maple Leafs selected him fifth overall in the 2012 entry draft. No, it's the fact that he's still just 22 years old that makes you stand back in awe of his professional achievements thus far.
And the other Leafs players are no different.
"Two-hundred-and-fifty-games by the age of 22 - that's remarkable," teammate - and fellow 22-year-old blueliner - Connor Carrick said of Rielly. "Being a player his age and position, you really respect it. That's awesome for him."
Carrick was drafted 137th overall in 2012 and has 65 games of NHL experience under his belt, but every player's journey to get to hockey's top league is different. That said, Carrick is quick to praise Rielly's speed and skill - and the manner in which he uses them to calmly dictate the pace of an increasingly-fast game.
"The pace of play he's able to play at - he's able to control what's going on out there with his feet," Carrick said of Rielly, who leads all Leafs players this season in time on ice average (22:30). "As a defenceman, your best asset is your feet. And he's got great vision, too. Both offensively and defensively he's able to anticipate, and because he's got great feet and great hockey sense, he's been able to have the success he's had."
Rielly's teammates and coaches concur.
"This year especially I've noticed his passing has just been unbelievable, whether it's making a breakout pass or in the offensive zone finding guys," said blueliner Jake Gardiner. "And his defensive awareness has gotten a lot better, I've noticed. He's playing against top-end guys every single night and succeeding at it."
"His fundamentals without the puck: his ability to box out; his ability with his stick; his ability to play the rush; his ability to gap up," added head coach Mike Babcock when asked where he's seen growth in Rielly's game. "All the things that allow him to play against the good players. When you first arrive, there's other guys on the team, and (former Leafs defenceman) Dion (Phaneuf) took a lot of heat for a lot of kids, kept the flies off them. Now (Rielly is) at a point in his career (where) he's got to be the guy for us."
As far as Rielly is concerned, the biggest area of growth he's seen in himself is in his all-around game - the fact Babcock can and does call on him in all situations. He has six assists in 12 games this season and 98 regular-season points in his career, but averages 2:37 of penalty kill time and can usually be found protecting his zone or looking to help the team score in key scenarios. Building that trust with Babcock is all the reward the Vancouver native needs.
"When I was younger, the most important part of my game that I wanted to work on was being well-rounded, being able to play both ends of the ice," Rielly said. "I'm still working at it and there's lots of work left to do and lots of room to improve. But for a young defenseman, I think the most important thing is that the coach can trust you, can put you out there at the end of games and on the PK. So you just still want to be well-rounded."
Rielly and his teammates take their three-game win streak into a tough showdown with the Los Angeles Kings Tuesday at Air Canada Centre, then host the Philadelphia Flyers Friday in his 250th game. There won't be any fanfare to celebrate the milestone, but that's fine by Rielly. Knowing the organization is teeming with talented youngsters and working toward creating a year-in, year-out Stanley Cup contender is what really matters.
"We've had changes, but this team's in a state now where we have it going in the right direction," Rielly said. "We're really comfortable with the people here in this locker room, and we're very comfortable with the coaches and management. They've done an outstanding job of making our players feel comfortable and creating a safe environment.
"It feels good to be in Toronto with this group."